Nazi row in Canada highlights Ukraine’s World War II past

  • Written by Nadine Youssef
  • BBC News, Toronto

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Photograph of Heinrich Himmler meeting soldiers of the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS

When the Canadian Parliament paid tribute to a Ukrainian war veteran who fought with Nazi Germany, a controversial part of Ukraine’s history was once again highlighted and memorialized in Canada.

Jaroslav Hunka, the Ukrainian war veteran who received applause in parliament this week, served with a Nazi unit called the 14th SS Waffen Grenadier Division – also known as the Galicia Division – which was formed in 1943.

His appearance was criticized by Jewish groups and other parliamentarians alike. MP Anthony Rota, who invited him, has since resigned as Speaker of the House of Commons, saying he deeply regrets the mistake.

But this is not the first time that Ukraine’s role in World War II has sparked controversy in Canada, which is home to the largest Ukrainian community outside Europe.

There are many monuments dedicated to Ukrainian World War II veterans who served in the Galicia Division throughout the country. Jewish groups have long denounced these dedications, arguing that the soldiers in the Galician division swore allegiance to Adolf Hitler and were either complicit in Nazi Germany’s crimes or committed crimes themselves.

But to some Ukrainians, these veterans are viewed as freedom fighters, who fought alongside the Nazis only to resist the Soviets in their quest to create an independent Ukraine.

Controversial history

The Galicia Division was part of the Waffen-SS, a Nazi military unit found to have participated in numerous atrocities, including the slaughter of Jewish civilians.

The Galician contingent has been accused of war crimes, but its members have never been convicted in a court of law.

Jewish groups have condemned Canadian memorials to Ukrainian veterans who fought in the Waffen-SS, saying they “glorify and celebrate those who actively participated in the crimes of the Holocaust.”

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A controversial statue of Ukrainian soldier Roman Shukhevych, located near the Ukrainian Youth Association in Edmonton

Monuments dating back to the 1970s and 1980s are all present to vandalism in recent yearsWith the word “Nazi” written in red.

Why is there disagreement about what the monuments represent?

David Marples, a professor of Eastern European history at the University of Alberta, said it goes back to Ukraine’s history of war, as well as the formation of the large Ukrainian community in Canada.

During World War II, millions of Ukrainians served in the Soviet Red Army, but thousands more fought on the German side under the command of the Galicia Division.

Professor Marples said those who fought with Germany believed it would give them an independent country free from Soviet rule.

At the time, Ukrainians resented the Soviets for their role in the Great Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933, also known as the Holodomor, which claimed the lives of an estimated five million Ukrainians.

Professor Marples said far-right ideologies were also gaining momentum in most European countries in the 1930s – including the UK – and Ukraine was no exception.

After Germany’s defeat, some soldiers of the Galician Division were allowed into Canada after surrendering to Allied forces – a move that was resisted by Jewish groups at the time.

Some Ukrainian Canadians view these soldiers and the broader Galician contingent as “national heroes” who fought for the country’s independence.

They also argue that their collaboration with Nazi Germany was short-lived, and that they eventually fought the Soviets and Germans for a free Ukraine.

But the Jewish community views this differently.

“The bottom line is that this unit, the 14th SS, was Nazi,” Michael Mostyn, leader of B’nai B’rith in Canada, told the BBC.

Canada has acknowledged this history in the past through a commission in 1985, tasked with investigating allegations that Canada had become a haven for Nazi war criminals.

The report added that “mere membership in the Galicia Section is not sufficient to justify prosecution.”

Jewish groups and some historians have disputed the report’s findings ever since.

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Roman Shukhevych (seated, second from left) appears at Bataillon 201 in 1942

Professor Marples said that at the time of the report, some World War II archives in Ukraine and Russia were inaccessible and have since become public, leading to renewed research on the issue.

Then it was revealed Through this additional research He said some of those who served in the Galician division were involved in war crimes, although none of them were ever convicted.

Russian disinformation targets Ukraine’s history

As this historical debate enters the 21st century, it has become further complicated by recent Russian propaganda, which has falsely labeled the Ukrainian government as Nazis to justify its invasion of the country.

Professor Marples said that although far-right extremism still exists in Ukraine, it is much smaller than Russian propaganda is trying to convince people of.

Ukrainian elected officials are not linked to any far-right group in the country.

“Russia has greatly simplified the narrative,” Professor Marbles said.

Ukrainian groups in Canada say the dispute over the monuments and Mr. Honka’s appearance in Parliament is the result of this propaganda.

Dating back to 2017, before the invasion but when tensions between Russia and Ukraine were high, the Russian embassy in Canada criticized the presence of Ukrainian monuments in Canada, accusing them of honoring “Nazi collaborators.”

Canadian politicians’ quick abdication of Honka is the latest effect of Russia’s disinformation campaign, said Taras Podilsky, spokesman for the Ukrainian Youth Unity complex in Edmonton that houses the bust of Shukhevych.

He added that there is no evidence linking the veteran to war crimes.

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Watch: The moment Canadian lawmakers celebrate Ukrainian Nazism

“Without due process, this person becomes a victim of the Russian narrative that has now worked,” Podilsky said.

B’nai B’rith’s Mr. Mostyn said he acknowledges the complex nature of this history, especially for some within the Ukrainian diaspora.

But he said any ties to Nazism “are not something we can allow future generations to celebrate or whitewash.”

The two Jewish groups in Canada and the Ukrainian Canadians behind the monuments said they had held talks about the issue.

However, both said they were unable to agree on a path forward.

“It is our private property, not public property, and it is our right to have a symbol of Ukrainian freedom,” Podilsky said of the bust of Shukhevych in Edmonton. “We know there was no wrongdoing.”

Mostyn said, for him, the recent episode in the Canadian House of Commons shows that there are gaps when it comes to Canada’s knowledge of Nazi history.

“We have a situation in Canada where we don’t know our history when it comes to Nazi perpetrators who made their way into this country,” he said.

He and others within Canada’s Jewish community have called for a re-examination of this history.

“It is really important that our prime minister shows leadership at the highest level, to finally open this up, because this is something the Jewish community has been demanding for decades.”

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